Cape Town - The Labour Court in Cape Town on Monday reserved judgment on whether it could hear the case of 11 farmworkers fighting their dismissal.
After lawyers for the workers and their employer Steytler Boerdery presented their opening arguments on the first day of the trial, it emerged that there was a dispute over their dismissal date.
Yvette Isaacs, for the workers, conceded that workers were locked out and not dismissed on January 8 last year, when they referred the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).
She further conceded that the matter had not been referred to the CCMA when the workers were finally dismissed on January 21 the same year.
However, she argued that it formed one chain of events.
According to the Labour Relations Act, a dispute must first be referred to the CCMA before it can be dealt with by the Labour Court.
Steenkamp believed he may not have jurisdiction to deal with the matter as a lockout was referred to the CCMA, not the actual dismissal in question.
He said he could not hear a matter over which he did not have any jurisdiction.
“I cannot wish it away, much as I would like to get into the meat and merits of the matter,” he said.
“This preliminary point does come as a surprise. I am going to have to consider it. I will only be giving a ruling tomorrow morning.”
The ruling on whether he could hear the case of the Robertson farmworkers would be made on Tuesday morning.
The applicants in the matter are Daniel Sambo, Jacques Jaftha, Andries Ambrose, Dawid Jooste, Salmon Swarts, Daniel Jonas, Linda Afrika, Adean Bruntjies, Christian Paulsen, and Esmeralda and Donovan Grootboom.
They are being represented by the Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), listed as the twelfth respondent.
Farming towns across the province came to a standstill during a workers' protest against poor wages and harsh living conditions towards the end of 2012 and the start of 2013.
Michael Crowe SC, for Steytler, said workers were dismissed at a hearing on January 21 after they apparently ignored two ultimatums to return to work and cease strike action immediately.
He said the strike had fallen within the first year of a sectoral wage determination, and within a period when Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant announced her intention to increase the minimum wage.
“Not only was it an unprotected strike, it was a prohibited strike,” Crowe said.
“... The minister had gone to great lengths to urgently intervene in the matter... but these particular applicants were not impressed by that and persisted with their demands in term of unlawful, unprotected strike action.”
He said his client had suffered great financial prejudice as a result of the labour action.
On the matter of costs, he said the applicants should be jointly and separately liable.
Isaacs said the absence of the 11 workers from the farm was justified in light of the national strike and that their conduct did not justify a dismissal.
She conceded that the strike was unprotected in terms of the Labour Relations Act.
However, she said workers had not returned to work after January 8 because they had been under the impression that they had been dismissed.
She also alleged that one of the conditions of the ultimatum had been for workers to cancel their union membership.
She argued that workers had to endure “utter hardship” to survive every month and that each party should pay their own costs.
Outside court, around 30 other farmworkers sang protest songs. Three small children held up cardboard signs with Afrikaans slogans stating “Stop slavery on farms” and “Our kids stay hungry”.